The affluent society starving investment

As the Economist points out this week, capital spending on transportation & water infrastructure in the USA has declined by two-thirds since its Kennedy (and Pat Brown) era heyday. As that era crested, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “The Affluent Society,” a vision of an America characterized by private affluence amidst public poverty. That vision has come to pass: the World Economic Forum ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. At a metropolitan level, I would hazard that Spanish and Chilean metropolitan commuters appear to enjoy more extensive and efficient mass transit and toll highways than their American counterparts.

As if this precipitous decline in investment just were not enough, Jonathan Cohn points out that the Ryan/House GOP budget would reduce federal spending on infrastructure by roughly half.* That the Republicans are leading this charge would surely disappoint that party’s founding fathers, who (as highlighted at GOP.com) “Established the Transcontinental Railroad” with lavish sums of federal “funny money” (land grants).

The GOP is broadly fighting a war against the future — attacking any investment in the future, choosing instead to distribute those false savings as tax cuts to foster present-day private consumption. The Ryan budget also cuts federal investment in human infrastructure — education — by over half. At the state level in North Carolina, N&O political columnist Rob Christensen frames the “two competing narratives” of low taxes and private consumption today vs. broader public gains tomorrow within the context of Richard Burr, a Republican of the old (pre-paleo-nihilist), truly pro-business variety:

[Gov. Perdue and the Democrats] have argued that North Carolina has been a leader in the South for the past several generations precisely because it has invested more than its sister states in creating a nationally respected university system, a noted community college system, and has historically been a leader in roads and the arts. That North Carolina — unlike other parts of the South — has not engaged in a race to have the lowest taxes in the South, the Democrats argue, has allowed the state to develop a more sophisticated industrial policy that has resulted in such success stories as the Research Triangle Park…

[Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr:] “We are the highest-tax state in the Southeast. And we still win. We win more than our neighboring states.” The main reason, Burr said, is because of North Carolina’s education system, particularly its university and community college system. “When an employer looks at an investment in North Carolina, they are not looking at the return next year,” Burr said. “They are looking at the return 30 years from now. They need a future workforce that has the skills and knowledge.”

* Note differing metrics (% of GDP spent by all levels of government vs. just federal spending per capita). I’d estimate the Ryan trendline on that graph slightly downward, based on stable or declining state/local spending, which seems likely given budget pressures, and GDP growth modestly outpacing population growth.

Speaking of smoothly functioning societies, Fukuyama confirms Kierkegaard’s theory that history ends in modern Copenhagen. We’re all “getting to Denmark,” it would seem.

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